Tom Hickman's War Without Rules

COMMENT

August 28, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

Even in war, there are rules.

When fighting a bitter war against Nazi Germany and Japan, two of the most detested enemies this country has ever fought, the U.S. government adhered to the rules outlined by the Geneva Conventions that called for the humane treatment of prisoners and civilians.

In the war on drugs, the rules of engagement are contained in the U.S. Constitution. Even though drugs are one of the most corrosive problems this country has faced, few citizens are willing suspend our civil liberties to eliminate drugs from society.

As we learn more about the operations of the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force, it is increasingly clear that this particular group of soldiers in the drug war has been making up its own rules during the past four years and paid little attention to the normal rules that apply to government agencies.

Carroll County State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman would like to convince the community that anyone who criticizes the drug task force is by definition against the war on drugs.

While Mr. Hickman directed some nasty comments at the auditors -- "a group of government workers who do not even know what their assignment is" -- he saved his most nasty invectives for The Sun.

The complete, and unedited, paragraph follows:

"During these past 16 months, the members of the task force and the advisory board have been burdened with a cloud over their reputations. Carroll editorials in the Baltimore Sun have used this situation to promote their anti-drug war bias with attacks on task force personnel and even in some instances the personal integrity of those involved with the task force.

"They were free to make up accusations based on false facts and innuendo because the auditors did not promptly and completely relate the facts. While the audit soundly impeaches them, a reward they richly deserve, that our officers had this cloud over them and many of our constituents were misled for months on end, was uncalled for."

As best as I can tell, the message contained in this verbal morass is that this newspaper created suspicions about the task force out of thin air. There was absolutely no basis, according to Mr. Hickman, to question the behavior of the task force.

Rather than casting blame on everyone else, Mr. Hickman ought to review some impartial opinions of certain task force actions.

The task force's cavalier attitude about controlling paid informants came under a blistering attack by county Circuit Court Judge Francis M. Arnold last December.

Furious that the task force allowed one of its informants to drive without a valid license, the judge asked, "does that mean that the state is going to just look the other way while this gentleman drives around while he's revoked?"

Fellow jurist Luke K. Burns Jr. was equally disturbed that the task force did not follow the law when it seized an automobile from a college student, who was carrying a pipe that contained such a small amount of marijuana that it took a state police crime lab technician with a microscope to find it.

"The forfeiting authority did not comply with the prerequisites giving it the power to seize and sell a person's property, nor did it file a verified complaint as required by law," Judge Burns wrote.

These are small examples of an overall problem that plagues this particular task force; it does not seem to obey the law and instead would rather make up its own rules.

This desire to operate in an unfettered fashion may explain why the task force has single-mindedly pursued small-time drug users and used every possible opportunity to seize property. It may also explain why the task force follows the peculiar practice of allowing defendants to buy their way out of charges.

In a 12-month period, 49 defendants paid the drug task force $45,000 to recover seized property, according to the county audit of the task force. The majority of these defendants never faced criminal charges.

Buying your way out of trouble may be an acceptable way of settling criminal charges in Latin American banana republics, but it should be repugnant to every American. Rather than relying on the rule of law, buybacks only encourage the arbitrary and capricious practices that look a lot like extortion.

Instead of drawing up charges against a defendant and prosecuting them in court -- where the burden is on the state to prove its case and strict rules of evidence prevail -- the task force would rather mete out its own version of justice in a system where the defendant is presumed guilty and must buy his or her innocence.

The failure of a law enforcement agency to obey the law is a fundamental violation of the very foundation of our government. "We are a government of laws and not of men" may be a hackneyed phrase, but it captures the essence of what American democracy is about.

For the past four years, this task force has been able to successfully dodge the normal controls and oversight by other government agencies.

This evasion of the normal checks and balances, which are a fundamental part of our government, has led to an arrogance that undermines the group's very mission.

Instead of vindicating the task force and "impeaching" its critics, the audit does just the opposite.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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